Benner/Sports and Indianapolis 500 and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Identifying the cream of the Indianapolis 500 crop

May 7, 2011

Well, we have only been waiting for this month for, what, 100 years? Now, we hope it will stop raining long enough to let us enjoy it.

The 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 is upon us. It serves as a time to reflect on the great history of one of America’s iconic sports events and, certainly, the event that has served as our city’s calling card around the world.

Make no mistake, the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Fours, Big Ten events, Indianapolis Colts, Indiana Pacers and other results of our sports initiative are tremendous, but the Indy 500 is our heart and soul.

Now I’m no Donald Davidson—then again, who is?—and, as an aside, thank goodness for the presence of the longtime Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian, whose “Talk of Gasoline Alley” show nightly during the month of May on WFNI-AM 1070 is a must-listen part of the festivities.

But as part of the 100th anniversary celebration, the folks at the Speedway have come up with an interactive web-based contest to select the greatest 33 drivers from the 732 who have been on the starting grid over the ages. You can find it by going to thegreatest33.com.

It is a treasure trove of 500 history.

I couldn’t resist taking a stab at compiling my own list. I tried—mostly—to be guided solely by Indy 500 accomplishments and not overall driving accomplishments.

Space prevents me from listing the entire 33, so this week, I will begin with my bottom 18—the last six rows, if you will.

No. 16: Arie Luyendyk. The Flying Dutchman sat on three poles, won twice and will—unless the rules are changed—forever be the fastest man in Speedway history with his qualifying lap of 237.498 in 1996.

No. 17: Gordon Johncock. Twenty-four starts, two victories, 10 top-six finishes and that memorable win over Rick Mears in 1982.

No. 18: Tom Sneva. The Gas Man broke both the 200- and 210-mile-an-hour barriers, won once and finished second three times.

No. 19: Dario Franchitti. A legacy still being written, the defending champion has two wins and five straight top 10’s.

No. 20: Emerson Fittipaldi. “Emmo” came to Indy after a distinguished Formula One career and won for both Pat Patrick and Roger Penske.

No. 21: Ralph DePalma. He won in 1915 and his 613-laps-led stood as the record until surpassed by Al Unser Sr. in 1987.

No. 22: Tommy Milton. First two-time winner.

No. 23: Jimmy Clark. The Scotsman was the first winner with a rear-engined car. He also finished second twice in a five-year span.

No. 24: Michael Andretti. Continued the Andretti curse but led 431 laps (tops among non-race-winners) over a 19-race career.

No. 25: Ted Horn. Never won, but in a 10-race span, never finished worse than fourth and completed all but one lap.

No. 26: Bobby Rahal. Seven top sevens and a win from 1984-1995.

No. 27: Jimmy Bryan. A racer’s racer who won in 1958 and even had a song, “The Ballad of Jimmy Bryan,” written for him. Likely would have won more if not for his death racing at Langhorne, Pa., in 1960.

No. 28: Jim Rathmann. Three seconds and a win (1960) in a nine-year span.

No. 29: Sam Hanks. Won on his 13th and final start and announced his retirement in Victory Lane.

No. 30: Billy Arnold. Won in 1930 and competed in just five races, but led nearly half the laps.

No. 31: Bill Cummings. “Wild Bill” was Mr. Consistency in the 1930s, winning in 1934 and capturing two poles.

No. 32: Lloyd Ruby. His biography is titled “The Greatest Driver Never to Win the Indianapolis 500.” And that pretty much says it all.

No. 33: Janet Guthrie. Purists are certain to argue with my selection of Guthrie, but only a few years after the Speedway finally allowed women into the pits, Guthrie became the first woman to start at Indy in 1977 and finished ninth in 1978. Just for blazing such a trail, she gets my nod.

Bumped after great deliberation: Rex Mays, Troy Ruttman, Sam Hornish Jr., Pat Flaherty, Howdy Wilcox, Tony and Gary Bettenhausen.

Back next week with my top 15.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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